The Big Parade and A Testament of Youth: Reviewing Two Antiwar Movies Made 90 Years Apart

It’s the battle of the Meuse-Argonne, in the autumn of 1918. Two of my great-grandfathers are there: one a young man in the Massachusetts infantry, hardly more than a boy, and the other, a New Yorker approaching middle age, in the engineering corp. There’s mud, rats, and chlorine gas. Death-filled wasteland would probably be an understatement.

Some of the relics still remain; bits and pieces. An old helmet and a gas mask with wide glass eyes, an envelope of photos showing the war-torn French countryside…the haunting photo in the back of the envelope that just shows a corpse lying on the side of the road. The old whispers of shell shock and trauma, of someone being institutionalized. Some of it remains, and so much of it is conjecture, guesses from the rumors we’ve heard.

This week I ended up watching two very thematically similar films that were made ninety years apart. Famous silent film director King Vidor’s 1925 classic The Big Parade, and a historical drama from just two years ago, 2014’s A Testament of Youth, based on the 1933 memoirs of pacifist Vera Brittain. It was a bit of a coincidence that I happened upon both of these movies only about a week apart, and it’s interesting to examine them both in contrast to each other.

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The Big Parade was made less than a decade after the war ended, back when the scars were all still very visible. It is important to note that it is an American-made film, and that the American experience in the first world war is unique in that we did not suffer nearly as much losses at the European countries involved, having only been involved for the last year or so. This film shows a more American version of the war’s consequences: it’s more on an individual scale than a crippling loss for the entire nation, as portrayed in European films such a Germany’s All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930.

The Big Parade tells the story of Jim, the spoiled son of an industrialist who goes to war simply to get his parents to stop nagging him about how useless and unproductive he is. He is pressured into joining the armed forces by his friends as well as the American propaganda machine, as a parade sweeps through town as a band plays “Over There” a patriotic song which was federally distributed to bars across the country (and which presidential candidate Donald Trump has disturbingly decided to bring back). Patriotic war songs of the era are played triumphantly throughout the beginning of the film, but as the characters begin to see the horrors of combat, the music becomes distorted-we get versions of “Over There” and “You’re in the Army Now” that sound like the scores to a horror film. It’s a subtle but brilliant effect that criticizes the glorification of war by the government.

The middle part of the film is a bit of a bore, to be honest. Jim is stationed in the French countryside with his army buddies, where they basically screw around and do a bunch of Chaplin-esqe comedy bits, and we develop fondness for Jim’s two closest comrades, Slim and Bull. Then he meets Melisande, a French farm girl, and they fall (somewhat unconvincingly) in love, despite having to talk in sign language the entire time due to the language difference.

The film really kicks off when the boys are finally called to the front-and they’re thrilled, having no idea what really awaits them there. Melisande runs to say goodbye to Jim before he leaves, and she is left alone, kneeling down and sobbing in the dust behind the army trucks. King Vidor loves to visually show the feeling of loneliness-it’s evident in his other work, notably 1928’s The Crowd-and he displays Melisande’s despair brilliantly. In a swarm of excited soldiers, she seems to be the only one truly aware that many of them will not be coming back.

Vidor consistently uses the motif of “big parades” and the parades he shows start out triumphant and gradually become funeral processions. He begins with scenes of armies marching in and awaiting glory, and transitions to lines of the dead being carried out, or swarms of refugees fleeing, or grieving wives, mothers, and children. He demands that we ask ourselves if the glorified parades at the beginning are really worth the tragic ones that follow-and why we keep falling into the trap of warfare that kills our youth again and again.

The absolute best scene in the film is Jim’s first experience with real warfare. The Americans are called in to the front-but to get to the trenches; they have to march through a forest seeming with German snipers hiding in the trees. We see them march in uniform lines as the Vidor focuses on Jim’s face. We see men being shot dead and falling to the ground all around him, and everyone continues to march undisturbed. No one stops to help Jim’s friends who have just been picked off, and they just keep marching like machines, as if nothing has happened. John Gilbert plays the transition brilliantly- he marches in confident, and as men begin to get shot down in such a casual manner, we see the horror and terror appear on Gilbert’s face. This is where the big transition happens.

More great moments happen once the men are in the trenches. Jim’s buddy Slim is shot dead, and Jim completely loses all of his composure, yelling about the uselessness of war over the battlefield, even though it means revealing their location to the Germans. Later on he ends up hiding in a trench with a young German soldier and giving him one last cigarette as he dies. As Jim watches the young boy die, you can see the epiphany light up on Gilbert’s face-he realizes that the Germans are just innocent young kids like themselves, and he begins to question why and what they are even fighting for in the first place. Jim ends up having to get a leg amputated, but the film ends on a happy note-he goes back to France to reunite with his beloved Melisande. Of course, unbeknownst to the filmmakers and the audience at the time, another war would soon be looming on the horizon.

It turns out even the real life story of the film is filled with death and tragedy-Renee Adoree, who played Melisande, would lose a battle of her own in a few short years-with tuberculosis. And Karl Dane, who played Slim, Jim’s friend who lost his life on the battlefield, would commit suicide in the thirties, just one of the examples of many silent film stars who became depressed and hopeless after finding their career could not carry over into sound movies.

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Testament of Youth may be based on a memoir of a woman who lived through the conflict, but it is translated into film by people living one hundred years after the war started, who see it in a sort of historical vacuum. It chronicles the wartime experiences of Vera Brittain, who would later write about them in her memoir of the same name.

The film tells the story of her relationships with three young men who go off to fight: her brother Edward, and his two friends Victor, and Roland-who she would eventually fall in love with. The film kills the three men off one by one, until-like Melisande in The Big Parade-only Vera is left to remember them.

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Vera as a nurse in the war.

Vera starts the movie desperate to go to Oxford-she’s a proud “bluestocking” and feminist, and has aspirations to write. But soon those dreams begin to change as her brother and his friends head off to the war. She ends up at Oxford by herself, frustrated about her lack of ability to help with the war effort. Despite the advice of the headmistress, Vera decides to become a nurse-she figures it’s the best way to feel closer to Roland and her brother.

As Vera heads off to France, she gets to witness the horrors of war firsthand. She spends all day tending to the horrific wounds of the English men brought to her-and has a moment similar to Jim’s in The Big Parade where she takes care of a wounded German man and is forced to recognize his humanity.

Vera loses the three young men closest to her one by one-Roland is killed tragically just days before their wedding, and soon after, Victor follows. The worst blow for Vera however, is that after saving her brother Edward’s life from a devastating wound in France, she receives a telegram announcing his death not long after. This is the final straw for Vera, and Alicia Vikander portrays her silent rage and passion beautifully. We see her grudgingly walk through a cheering crowd celebrating the end of the war, silent and furious. She feels a tremendous urge to do something.

And so she does-she stands up and makes an impassioned speech at a debate at Oxford, calling for peace…and little does everyone know that this is the start of the long career of pacifist and feminist writer and activist Vera Brittain.

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So what do ninety years do to two films that are essentially preaching the same message? Our understanding of the war has certainly changed our perspectives-Testament of Youth has the advantage of hindsight-we know about the other world war that will follow, and the filmmakers had more concrete historical knowledge on how truly horrific the warfare was-modern film also allows us to show and insinuate more violence. But The Big Parade is fascinating as a historical document-we get to understand the war from the perspective of those who still saw it as an isolated conflict, and who still had the memories and scars fresh in their minds.

I really enjoyed both of these films, and their antiwar messages. I’m also now excited to read Vera Brittain’s memoirs!

So what do you think the passage of time does to art and the messages it preaches? Let me know in the comments!

A Tour Through My Antique Book Collection

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The gorgeous library at Trinity College, Dublin, which I was lucky enough to visit and subsequently cry over in 2012.

I love books. I love history. I love antiques. And nothing combines all of these passions quite so perfectly as collecting antique books.

I find them at antique shops, bookstores, and inherit them from family members. I research them on the internet and obsess over their yellowed pages. I imagine what all the previous readers must of been like, the times they inhabited, and how they thought about the words on the page differently from me because of it. If my house was on fire, these would be the first thing I’d grab. They’re my babies.

Some of them I love because of their age, some their content, and some because they represent my family’s history. So here I am to show you eight of the stars of my collection:

History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholicby William H Prescott (1838)

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This is an 1838 history text that comes from my Dad’s side of the family, somewhere, I suppose. There’s a lot of pretty bad foxing going on, (as evident from the picture) but that’s what happens when you have a book sit on a shelf through the Civil War. Maybe if I actually sat down to read it I would have gotten a higher score on AP Euro, but I guess I’ll never know.

Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, edited by William J. Rolfe (1906)

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This book is what I call, “The Sassy Hamlet”. This 1906 copy of Hamlet belonged to my great-grandfather in high school, and boy, did he annotate the shit out of it…SASSILY. Sure some of the notes are helpful and informative, but he literally cannot go one scene without penciling in that someone is being a melodramatic turd and that he is not okay with it. I love him.

The Elements of Chemistry: A Textbook for Beginners- by Ira Remson (1890)

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On vacation a year or two ago, I found this Victorian chemistry book for $3 in an antique shop and decided to adopt it. It belonged to two students who inked their names into the inside cover-Rosalie Muckenfuss and Lalla Martin (whose 1894 homework on the knights of the roundtable, as seen above, was stuffed inside the pages). And you can sure bet I stalked both on them on ancestry.com. Rosalie moved to New York to become one of the first female Vaudeville producers. Girls doing science, especially in a time when it was discouraged, is super rad. 🙂

Oeuvres du Philosophe de Sans Souci– by Frederick the Great (1760)

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This book was in my grandfather’s house and he let me have it. It’s from 1760. That’s old. Really, really, old. Older than the country I am sitting in old. I have no idea how my grandfather got his hands on this thing. This book was printed at Frederick the Great’s palace, Sanssouci, in Potsdam, which is kind of awesome. It was edited by Voltaire, and basically contains a bunch of poems and odes where Frederick sasses people he doesn’t like. I’d love to read them, but alas, I never took French. I adore having this book sitting on my shelf though…I like to imagine that it once sat on a table at an enlightenment era salon surrounded by the day’s great thinkers. And I’m just going to take the liberty of assuming that one coffee stain can be attributed to Mary Wollstonecraft. I mean, I don’t know it wasn’t, right?

The Speaker’s Complete Program -collected by David W. Caskey Jr. (1891)

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This was a schoolbook that belonged to a different great-grandfather during his school days in 1890s New York. Someone gave it to me during a family reunion. It’s a bunch of really awful poetry. This was back in the days when half of your education consisted of reciting really awful poetry. The best thing about it though, is that my great-grandfather had a penchant for stuffing poems he clipped from newspapers into it. Flipping the poems over and looking at the wacko advertisements they put in the 1890s newspapers is rather entertaining.

German Communion Bible (1909)

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My great-grandmother was the granddaughter of German immigrants who settled in Minnesota in the 1850s. I have no idea how much German she could actually read, but this tiny communion bible from 1909, with her name etched in the cover, makes me wonder if she did.

Wordsworth’s Poems Vol.2 (1880)

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There’s no shortage of bookstores in London, and I found this tiny Wordsworth collection in a very strange one that was literally underneath a street near Picadilly, and required me to go down a really terrifying staircase to access it. So I paid two pounds for it and brought it back with me. The Romantic poets are my favorites, so I had to, really.

Birds of Washington and Vicinity: Where to Find and How to Know Them-by Mrs. L.W. Maynard (1898)

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This book belonged to a woman who I’m not related to, but who I owe everything. She owned a house in Washington DC and was kind enough to let a strange girl stay with her, once upon a time in the years following WWI. The girl was nineteen and was leaving her family farm in Pennsylvania for the first time to see the city, and spent her days walking through the Capital and sitting on the porch, composing long letters to her family back home. Then the woman let another boarder into her house soon after, her nephew who had just returned from the war in France. He ended up taking a fancy to the girl who spent her time writing letters on the porch, and the rest is history. Those were my great-grandparents, and more than a hundred years later, here I am, a girl who was named after that girl who sat writing letters on a stranger’s porch, holding that stranger’s book. Thanks to that woman’s generosity, I exist, which is pretty cool, when you think about it.

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So there we have it: eight of my most prized antique books. And if this strange obsession continues, there will be many, many more to come.

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Reviewing Two Magical Love Stories for Valentine’s Day

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern-7.5/10

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman-6/10

 

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I’m a single pringle this Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t mean I can’t snuggle up with a good love story from time to time. This Winter, I read two, and two that instantly seemed linked somehow in my mind-I can’t think of one now without thinking of the other. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. These are two stories about the human struggle to understand and control magic in two very different universes-one where magic is very real, and one in which it remains a fantasy. In Circus, a pair of young lovers struggle against the influence of magic in their lives, and in Museum, a grieving New York City attempts to find and create it amongst pain and hardship.

The Night Circus is the kind of novel I hope someone stumbles into at an antique shop two hundred years from now, with yellowed pages and mysterious stains from coffee brewed before their grandparents were born. It’s just the kind of story that lends itself to those circumstances. The design and artistic sensibilities that went into making this book are phenomenal, and reflect the gorgeous imagery contained inside the pages. The cover shows a black and white striped circus tent with the silhouettes of two dueling magicians resplendent in Victorian eveningwear. It’s magical and inviting even before you start reading.

The Night Circus tells the enchanting love story of Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair, two young magicians who, as children, became magically bound to fight each other as adults by their dubious and competitive guardians. The exact rules and consequences of this mysterious contest are unknown to both the participants and the reader. Soon enough, Marco and Celia become entangled with Le Cirque Des Reves (the circus of dreams), an ambitious project spearheaded by a man named Chandresh Lefevre, who has recruited the best and brightest to assist in his creation: a beautiful and enchanting circus that defies expectations. As Celia and Marco assist with using their magic to assist the circus, they realize that their creations are part of the contest they’ve been predestined to fight in. But things can’t be that simple: they end up falling head over heels in love. As the story unfolds, Marco and Celia try to understand and protect themselves from the magic that threatens their relationship.

The structure of the novel reinforces the idea that you are not simply reading a novel, but a legend or myth lost in time. Chapters begin with poems or newspaper excerpts about the fictional Cirque des Reves, adding credibility to the observations of the characters. The novel is filled with time jumps and changes of perspective, which, impressively, unlike most novels that share this structure, only heightens the mystery, making you wonder about the character’s connections to one another. The novel is extremely heavy in terms of exposition, but it’s very much worth it once the plot really starts to kick in. The entire supporting cast of the novel is wonderful and memorable. There’s Bailey, a young circus-goer from Massachusetts who gets swept up into the plot, and Isobel, the circus fortuneteller and Marco’s former lover. My favorite supporting character however, was Tsukiko, the circus’s contortionist. She’s a rare and charming combination of kind and mysterious, and we later learn about her own experiences with magic-and how it ended in tragedy. Brownie Points to Circus for having a wonderfully diverse set of characters-there’s a wide range of races, ethnicities, and sexualities, despite the Victorian time period.

The real magic of the novel however, comes from the delightful and delicious imagery of the circus that Morgenstern crafts-a magician in her own right. This is not your average circus with junk food, sad elephants, and creepy clowns. It’s a magical work of art, attention paid to every detail, everything designed to stimulate all of your senses. There’s a garden made of ice, a mystical clock tower, and fabulous chocolate desserts that someone on Etsy should seriously try replicating.

This is the true gift you receive from picking up The Night Circus-the setting, the enchanting Les Cirque Des Reves-is absolutely indelible. It’s the kind of story that you hope leaks into your dreams at night.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, however, takes place in a world devoid of magic: New York City in 1911, which is simultaneously embracing and cringing at the coming changes of the 20th century. Museum takes us inside the minds of two of its inhabitants, Coralie Sardie and Eddie Cohen, with chapters that alternate from 3rd to 1st person from each of their perspectives. Both characters have rich inner lives, and its fascinating to hear their thoughts-on their identities, family, and how much impact they can have on an unfair world that seems resistant to change.

Coralie spends her days as a mermaid in her father’s museum of extraordinary things, and she’s been trained to perform in a tank since she was a child because of a birth defect that gave her webbed hands. She is incredibly isolated and in many ways naïve, especially regarding the cruel way her father exploits her and the other show performers. Eddie, on the other hand, is much more worldly and weathered, having immigrated to New York as a child from Russia, after a devastating pogrom destroyed his village. After a childhood of factory work and witnessing the inequality of the city firsthand, he runs away to be an apprentice to a photographer, leaving his father, faith, and community behind.

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New York Herald headline from the Triangle Fire, 1911.

The book’s plot kicks off with a real historical tragedy- the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire-a horrific event that killed 146 people, mostly young women and girls. The disaster finally woke the city up to the realities of dangerous factory work- and made the community even more aware of the hideous inequality that surrounded them, much like the Titanic disaster would a year later. Coralie and Eddie are no exception, and end up entangled in the events surrounding the fire, searching for a girl named Hannah who vanished shortly before the event.

As Coralie and Eddie try to solve the mystery of Hannah’s disappearance, they fall in love and learn to live in a city that is teeming with grief and outrage. The book sells itself as a love story between the two protagonists, but the meat of the story is so much more about the personal development they experience independent of one another. Eddie learns how to control and utilize his anger, as the factory fire brings back vivid memories of an encounter he had with a factory owner’s son when he himself was a child laborer. He also deals with the issue of his identity, learns that he cannot escape his roots, and eventually begins to embrace them again, while still staying independent. Coralie matures and learns important lessons from those around her, like Maureen, the family housekeeper and a mother figure to Coralie, and Raymond Morris, one of the other freak show performers. Mr. Morris reads Maureen and Coralie Jane Eyre, and the three of them use the book as an inspiration to accept and stand up for themselves.

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Dreamland Amusement Park-1905

The climax of the book is another historic fire, one that destroyed the Dreamland amusement park on Coney Island. As the once extravagant park crumbles to ashes, Eddie is left to rescue Coralie, who has been locked in her nearby home by her father. They run through the brightly burning streets with wild animals on the loose from the park. The scene is incredibly written, and Hoffman manages to capture the chaotic beauty of it perfectly. Hoffman’s prose is the best part of Museum, and there are some unforgettable images, like Maureen slicing up a tomato from the garden to find the insides black from the ashes of the factory fire earlier in the spring. The way she writes about photography and its power is equally wonderful. The novel is a snapshot of a turbulent era in history, and we feel privileged to get to experience it in such an intimate way.

Unfortunately, a complaint I share about both these books is that the love stories don’t really start until halfway through the book, and then they both feel rushed towards the end. Neither of the couples interact enough for you to realistically believe they’re in love with each other as they say they are. This lends itself much better to Circus, considering the narrative is one of legendary star-crossed lovers. It simply feels awkward in Museum, however, especially considering how much the book stresses realism and how fragile any created magic is in such a harsh world.

Both stories take place relatively near each other in time, Circus spans across the 1880s and 90s through a variety of cities across the globe, while Museum is contained to 1911 in New York City. Museum is rich with kinds of historical detail, and the social issues of the period permeate every part of the narrative. It’s more of a study of early 20th century class struggles than of a museum of eccentricities. Circus, however, doesn’t make much use of its late Victorian atmosphere except to put Celia in sweeping gowns and to get rid of cell phones. It can’t really be classified as historical fiction by any means.

What connects these two stories so strongly in my mind is the way they both deal with magic, in worlds where it thrives and in places people can only yearn for it. They both examine the difference between the two types of magic-the kind with spells and mermaids, and the kind that is simply the extraordinary chemistry between two people. They teach us that there is both ordinary magic and extraordinary magic. Celia and Marco simply want to preserve the ordinary magic of their romance, but find their ties to extraordinary magic threatening it. Coralie and Eddie live in a city desperate to distract itself from its pain with magic tricks and amusements to no avail…they learn that all the illusions are futile, in the end: it’s best to let the truth show and find magic and wonderment in the ordinary.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! Take a moment to have a look around you and treasure all the ordinary magic in the world. ❤

3 Things I Learned During My First Week of Nanowrimo

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One short week ago, I was but a mere mortal like the rest of you. Now, I am a writer, a being whose words will lie in the immortal canon of American literature forever. Or, somewhere on my Macbook folder next to a pasta recipe.

Toni Morrison even sent me mail this morning! Ok, she just wanted my money for charity, but hey, it could be some sort of sign from above that I’m predestined for greatness. Toni can sense these talents in me, probably.

In case you don’t know, Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month (November), which is when writers from all over the world, amateurs and professionals alike, solve their collective unproductivity problem by torturing themselves for thirty days in a quest to reach a word count goal. 50,000 words in a month, 1,667 a day, for most people. Or, if you’re an insane person like me, 2,000 a day, leading up to a grand total of 60,000 words. And yes, I will regret that decision at some point, probably.

1) Outlining is important, but flexibility is important too.

Last time I did Nanowrimo, I had maybe half a page of notes, and I only made it up to about 8,000 words until I quit. This time around, I felt a lot more motivated, so I accomplished a lot more in the way of preparation. I created a massive, unorganized, sticky note collage of all my ideas. It was like that scene in 500 Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes all over his magic blackboard paint walls while this music plays in the background. Maybe not that glorious. Some sticky notes came off the wall and stuck to my butt.

The point is, even if you’re the world’s most accomplished bullshitter, (and yes, I do hold that title) it’s still a smart idea to plan out what you’re doing, at least for next few days or so. I have a basic idea of where I want my book to go, and I’m always planning what scenes I’m going to write the next day, so I’m not staring blankly at a keyboard. However, your outline shouldn’t be fixed. As you write, all sorts of new ideas come into your head, and your outline should be flexible enough for you to accommodate them.

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Not planning enough can make you feel a bit like this sad and confused platypus. Poor semi-aquatic, egg-laying fella.

2) Sometimes beautiful things happen in the midst of bullshitting your word count.

One of the reasons that writing for Nanowrimo beats writing for school is that everyone thinks cheating is cool, and in fact, if you don’t cheat a little bit, you’re kind of super perfect and everyone hates you. Writing 1500-2000 words each day can be tricky, especially on a day when you’ve been busy with other things, or aren’t adequately caffeinated, or words just won’t appear in your head. That’s what Nanobullshitting is for, my friends. Here are some classic examples:

Out of Character Weird Shit

-You’re writing a crime novel. The coroner starts naming the broken bones in the victims body. You plan on it just being a leg and possibly a rib, but then an idea strikes you. The coroner has secret passion for music, as well as the Disney Channel, and breaks out into a rendition of “The Bone Dance” from the classic 2007 Hannah Montana episode “Get Down Study-udy-udy.” They proceed to sing the name of every bone in the body. And someone asks for an encore. Why not. Maybe he’s got real talent.

Random, Extraneous Listing

-You’re writing a story where your protagonist is a human, and requires food to live. Therefore, he must at some point, purchase food. He enters a grocery store and examines his options. “Let’s see.” he says. “I’m not sure what to eat. There’s apples, bananas, celery, potatoes, yogurt, cheddar cheese, rice, ham, Pringles, chicken legs, pasta, ice cream, cookies, spinach, kale, Cheetos. I’ll get Cheetos. Wait. Let me read the nutrition facts aloud to myself: Enriched corn meal, vegetable oil, cheese seasoning, canola oil…”

Reusing Material

-You’re writing a romance novel. The two characters meet each other and start talking. Character A says they saw a movie this weekend. “How was it?” Character B asks. You then proceed to copy and paste an unfinished review of said movie that you almost published on your blog two years ago. Hey, I mean, you still technically wrote it. “Wow.” Character B says. “Your critical faculties are unbelievably hot.” If you’re writing a historically based romance novel, don’t despair, your sophomore year paper on Hamlet works just as well.

You might be high and mighty about not pulling any of these now, but trust me, you’ll burn out and get there. But even if you do, (you will) sometimes you find beautifully random ideas in the midst of all your bullshit. Maybe what your novel needs is a subplot about a coroner with Broadway aspirations. You never know. It’s not all for naught, my friends. Bullshit away.

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3) Eventually, you’ll reach that magical point where you begin to care about your characters.

Ever heard of “writing someone into a box”? Well last week, I legitimately wrote somebody INTO. A. BOX. My protagonist was trapped inside that sucker for a good eight hours. She was asleep for most of it, at least, I mean for god’s sake, I’m not that sadistic, but she was still pretty panicked when she woke up. I happened to finish Thursday’s word count right after my protagonist’s rude, claustrophobic awakening. So I left my desk and went to go get a snack, and then it hit me.

Oh my god, I thought, I left this poor woman trapped inside a box. Then I started panicking a little myself. Would she be okay if I left her there until tomorrow? Should I have written in visible breathing holes? Can fictional characters feel like they’ve been abandoned? Will the government show up and force me to abandon my characters to social services? It took me fifteen minutes or so to try and rationalize this in my head. I blame reading Inkheart as a kid, personally. Damn you, Cornelia Funke.

But then I came to realize, this was a sign of progress. Nobody gives a damn about a name on an outline, but in 10,000 words, I had made myself care. There’s a great TED Talk where Andrew Stanton, a writer at Pixar, talks about Pixar’s rules for storytelling. And the most critical, he says, is “make me care”. Pixar, frankly, kicks ass at this. We care about Carl Fredricksen because of the first eight devastating minutes of that movie. We care that Marlin finds Nemo because we learn they’re all each other has. Your audience needs to be able to relate to the characters, root for them or despise them, they need to care. And as the writer, making yourself care is the first step.

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One week done, 16,000 words logged in, and I’d say I’ve done pretty well so far. So, blogosphere, what are your tips for staying motivated during Nano? Have you made any fun discoveries about your creative self along the way? Let me know in the comments!

5 Things Other Television Needs to Learn from Gilmore Girls

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It’s autumn. That time of year where part of your neighborhood might slightly resemble Star Hollow, if you look closely, at an angle, through an Instagram filter, sort of. It’s the perfect time of year to pull out the ol’ DVD box sets, pour yourself a cup of joe, and reunite with the two most fabulous ladies in television. And with a possible Netflix revival series coming up, you have an excuse. Here’s five things that make Gilmore Girls the unique show we all love, and how other TV writers can incorporate some of the series’ successes into their own work.

1) School is actually a place where people learn, DAMMIT.

If alien beings tried to learn about what American earth high schools were like by watching television, they’d assume high school is just a large bank of lockers for teenagers to lean up against while they make out with each other and to pull notebooks out of, for I don’t know, aesthetic purposes, I guess. I went to high school, trust me, it’s not that fun. Sure, there’s plenty of drama to go around, but especially in today’s super-competitive college environment, many of today’s teenagers spend most of their time worrying about exams, papers, and college applications. Rory Gilmore, shockingly, is the first high school character I’ve ever encountered that actually seems to get any homework. That shouldn’t be as revolutionary as it is. I would assume that most TV shows avoid the school part of high school under the assumption that it will bore audiences, but Gilmore Girls is proof that it doesn’t have to be a massive snooze-fest. The great thing about the writing of this show is that it can make anything interesting, from a grocery store run to Luke doing house repairs, because the dialogue will always be witty, vibrant, and insightful regardless of how seemingly mundane a situation is, school included. Season 3 has an entire plot arc about Rory’s college applications and decision process, and the entire thing is a delight, from the Harvard vs. Yale suspense to Paris Geller’s infamous Harvard rejection breakdown on CSPAN. I often turned to this season during my own college application process, and hearing characters I loved making snarky remarks about the bizarre and stressful nature of the whole thing was extremely comforting. There’s definitely another level of realism added to a narrative when your school age characters actually like, show up to class sometimes.

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2) Write your female characters doing things society says they’re not supposed to be doing.

We don’t realize how often women on television play by the rules until we see the ones that don’t. And Lorelai and Rory are constantly breaking the two cardinal rules of being a television woman-eat nothing, and be quiet. There’s hardly an episode that goes without a visit to Luke’s diner or a junk food filled movie marathon on the couch. It’s a show packed with dialogue, mostly between Lorelai and Rory-it doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test, it smashes it like Kirk driving a vintage car through Luke’s window. Not only are this mother-daughter pair breaking the rules, they’re making it look fun, too. Lorelai’s abrasive, referential sense of humor and nonstop chatter upset the upper-crust acquaintances of her parents in a way that makes us cheer for her. Lorelai wears an outrageous outfit that distresses the Chilton headmaster. Food for movie night at the Gilmore household is no mere frozen pizza, it’s a strategically planned buffet, an art form, a colorful junk food feast fit for the gods. These are human, real women who remind us that a lot of the rules we don’t even realize we’re following are archaic, stupid, and pointless, and that we should go about breaking them with relish and style.

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3) Treat older women like the complex human beings they are.

Again, this shouldn’t be something that’s so rare on our screens. Especially with women, who once they turn fifty, or even forty, have difficulty finding interesting roles. Emily Gilmore is a fascinating character. She’s a wealthy housewife, social butterfly, and most interesting of all, a mother who is living with the fact that her only daughter has rejected her. Almost never do we see a female character this age with such complex motives. Emily is unpredictable. She’s self-preserving, sneaky, and ambitious. She’s so Slytherin she makes Draco Malfoy look like a Hufflepuff. She makes being DAR president seem equivalent to being a mafia boss. She’s one of those ladies who retires and says, “Oh, maybe I’ll take up painting, or WORLD DOMINATION.” But at the same time, she’s still vulnerable. She’s still tormented by Lorelai’s rejection, she obsessively tries to get Rory away from her mother’s influence, and at the same time, spending time with her daughter and granddaughter have made her reconsider the bubble of a world she’s always inhabited, and reevaluate whether she’s actually done anything useful with her life. She’s not just a nagging mother to Lorelai or a doting grandmother to Rory, she’s her own person with her own story.

Definitely the face of someone who is not afraid to murder you.
Definitely the face of someone who is not afraid to murder you.

4) Don’t underestimate your audience.

Watch most network sitcoms today, and as an average American adult, you’ll probably get all if not most of the jokes, because they’re aiming for them to hit the right note with the largest percentage of the audience. But there’s something special about a joke that you feel like you’ve earned. The beauty of Gilmore Girls is that nobody gets all of the jokes, because some of them, frankly, are as obscure as all hell. There’s nothing more satisfying than returning to an episode and feeling like you got a joke you know you missed last time. You read Anna Karenina in high school, dammit, and you earned that joke. YOU EARNED IT.

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5) Write relationships between women that are both positive and realistic.

Writers seem to think that two women being friends or family members is some sort of cheap ticket to introduce conflict into a story. The mother is the source of all evil stopping the teenager from having fun, the daughter is the miscreant who is ruining the household peace. Two girls are not so much friends as verbal punching bags who always like the same boy and don’t invite each other to parties. Guys, it’s starting to get repetitive and depressing, really. You know what TV moments make me really happy? The serendipity of Lorelai and Rory pelting Jess’s car with deviled eggs. Rory and Lane dying Lane’s hair purple only to immediately change it back again. Lorelai and Sookie excitedly helping each other get ready for dates. Yes, everybody gets into fights occasionally, but in my experience, my mom and my friends have always been my closest allies, and I want to see women support each other like that on my television, too.

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Bravo, Gilmore Girls. Where they lead, the rest of you should follow.

What do you think is special about Gilmore Girls? What are your crazy predictions for the possible Netflix revival? Let me know in the comments!